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Information Technology

39. Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): If he will make a statement on the development of IT systems within his Department. [65336]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): Current IT systems in the courts are limited in scope and in their ability to communicate with other parts of the justice system. That is why the Department has started a major programme of IT modernisation, beginning with providing IT infrastructure and networks for court users and developing online services for the public and pilot programmes in new technology.

Norman Lamb: May I ask the Minister about the Libra project? Back in May, there were reports that the whole project was to be abandoned at a vast cost to the public purse. It was supposed to be a vital part of the Government's modernisation process for the courts. Will the Minister tell us what the current situation is with regard to the project and ensure that matters proceed quickly, as court staff are getting frustrated by the endless delays?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. There are two parts to the Libra project. The first part—providing the modern infrastructure and computer equipment for magistrates courts—is 75 per cent. complete and the remainder will be completed by early next year. The second phase is the new standard software application, which was not delivered by the supplier when planned. We are in negotiations with the Libra supplier, Fujitsu Services, to resolve the situation, and I will inform the House of the outcome of those negotiations as soon as they are complete. I take on board the point that has been raised.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): May I commend to the House last night's meeting of PITCOM, the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee, in which three senior police officers spoke to hon. Members about IT issues in the criminal justice system? It was a very worthwhile event. One comment made to me behind the scenes was about how much progress had been made in the criminal justice IT system. I congratulate the Department on that, but will my hon. Friend ensure that in all future procurement, work is done closely with the customers—the people who do the work at the sharp end—to ensure that procurement meets their needs?

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right that procurement needs to be undertaken in close co-operation with the customer. In the criminal justice system, that means not only the particular customer who will be using the system, but the other criminal justice agencies that they may need to communicate with. We have to ensure that systems are compatible and work well in communicating between the various agencies.

Knutsford Crown Court

40. Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): When he will announce his decision on the proposed closure of Knutsford crown court. [65338]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the public consultation on the possible closure of the crown court at Knutsford ended on 31 May. The group manager responsible for the court is considering whether

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a formal case for closure should be presented to the Lord Chancellor. I understand that the group manager expects to complete his considerations over the summer.

Mr. Osborne: I thank the Minister for that answer. She will be aware of the enormous opposition to the closure from local people, local law professionals and local Members of Parliament of all parties. Through an Adjournment debate and a petition, I was making great progress with the Minister's predecessor, but then he was moved—or sacked, depending on how one interprets the newspaper reports of what happened to him—so I have to start all over again. Will she at least approach the matter with an open mind and consider the arguments, not just go along with the Department's initial proposals?

Yvette Cooper: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will meet him and other hon. Members from the local area to hear their views. I have not yet received official advice or recommendations on the future of Knutsford crown court. I shall certainly meet the hon. Gentleman before the summer recess to discuss it.


The President of the Council was asked—

Reception Arrangements

49. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If he will make a statement on arrangements for receiving members of the public at the House. [65349]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Improvements to arrangements for receiving the public at Parliament have already been made, and more are planned. A feasibility study is shortly to make recommendations on a new visitor centre for the public.

Mr. Chapman: Does my hon. Friend agree although the prime determinant of the public's perception of our parliamentary democracy may be what we do in this Chamber and how we do it, arrangements for the reception of visitors are an important element? Does he accept that we have not done as well as we might have done in the past as regards queueing arrangements, line of route tours, refreshment facilities, and so on? Does he recognise that my constituents have a round trip of more than 400 miles to come here, so we need to get those arrangements spot-on?

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that although the steps that have been taken so far are very welcome, as is the feasibility study that he mentioned, there is a lot more to be done? Will he assure me that those matters will be moved forward and kept constantly under review?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I should like to offer my hon. Friend that assurance. Every hon. Member has had similar experiences with constituents who come to this building, which was not designed as a building for a modern, functioning Parliament. That affects not only us, but members of the public, who nowadays expect it to be accessible. Improvements have been made, including the

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new screens and new reception desk in Central Lobby, screens at St. Stephen's entrance—which should help with new guiding arrangements—and the new Jubilee café. From the point of view of visitors who have to wait outside in our monsoon summer weather, the feasibility study's recommendations on a visitor centre will make a great deal of difference.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the Minister agree that extra morning sittings will hardly make the place more accessible?

Mr. Bradshaw: Not necessarily, but if any suggestions regarding extra morning sittings were to be made, one of the matters that would have to be taken into account is the impact that they would have on the public accessibility of this place. However, other Parliaments sit in the morning and manage to be much more accessible than we are.


50. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): What plans he has to propose to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons that there should be time limits on speeches in all debates in the House. [65350]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): My right hon. Friend will make further suggestions to the Modernisation Committee on time limits for speeches. In his earlier memorandum, he suggested that there could be advantages if debates were shorter in length but greater in number. That would imply shorter speeches.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that 10 minutes is perfectly adequate for hon. Members to make all the points that they wish? A general 10-minute time limit would give more hon. Members the opportunity to take part and thus end the frustration of sitting in the Chamber for many hours without being able to contribute except through interventions. Will he look into that?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes. That is an excellent point. You already have discretion, Mr. Speaker, under Standing Orders to set a time limit for speeches. As a radio journalist, I was taught that one should be able to make one's point in 40 seconds. I am not expecting hon. Members to be able to do that, but I hope that they can be much briefer.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the Minister consider introducing proposals to ensure a reduction in prolixity in questions and replies during Question Time and statements?

Mr. Bradshaw: The right hon. and learned Gentleman must forgive my ignorance. I assume that the question dealt with the length of questions and answers. If so, I agree with him. Questions and answers as well as speeches are invariably far too long.

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51. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): What plans he has to present proposals to improve scrutiny of Government legislation. [65351]

52. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What plans he has to ensure that more Bills in the next session are subject to pre–legislative scrutiny. [65352]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I set out my proposals for better scrutiny of legislation in my memorandum on modernisation, which is currently being studied in the Modernisation Committee. A key proposal is that, over a period of time, publication in draft should become the norm rather than the exception for Bills, thus enabling more to be the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny. It would be possible to arrange for longer and more thorough scrutiny of each Bill if the House agreed to carry over measures into subsequent Sessions.

Dr. Stoate: I found serving on the Pre-legislative Committee for the Food Standards Bill rewarding and that I was more in touch with the programme for the measure. The Committee was able to improve the Bill before the House considered it and we therefore debated better legislation. Will my right hon. Friend use his best efforts to ensure that as many hon. Members as possible can take part in pre-legislative scrutiny and thus secure the widest possible representation?

Mr. Cook: I agree with my hon. Friend that one of the advantages of pre-legislative scrutiny is that it ensures that several problems are snagged out before the Bill comes before the House and that the relevant Department has a fair and accurate idea of hon. Members' views.

Pre-legislative scrutiny is first a matter for the relevant Select Committee. It is a great advantage that hon. Members who are most expert on a topic examine the draft Bills. However, that requires the Select Committees to accept pre-legislative scrutiny as an obligation to which they should give priority. From time to time, we can consider other methods of pre-legislative scrutiny, for example, through a Joint Committee, which is currently considering the Office of Communications Bill.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) and the hon. Member for North–West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) served on the Special Standing Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Bill. We all accepted that it was useful to be able to take evidence before considering a Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that procedure should be applied to all major Bills? Does not it have the advantage over Select Committees of ensuring that the latter maintain their independence when considering departmental matters?

Mr. Cook: I am not sure that I accept that a tension or conflict exists between the two methods of proceeding. I do not understand why a Select Committee should not undertake pre-legislative scrutiny and, when appropriate, we should not provide for a Standing Committee to call evidence. I agree with my hon. Friend that a Special Standing Committee has advantages. I regret that we have

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been able use that method for only one Bill—the Adoption and Children Bill—in the Session. I should like more Standing Committees to have the freedom to call witnesses if they choose. The speed at which we are required to get Bills through the House to fit the current sessional straitjacket stands in the way of that. If Bills could be carried over from one Session to the next, we could have more Special Standing Committees.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, even with pre- legislative scrutiny, many clauses and Government amendments pass into law without debate because they fall victim to programme motions or the House's failure to manage the business properly? Does he agree that a strong business committee with some independence of Government should be in a position to manage business and to ensure adequate time for proper discussion?

Mr. Cook: I fully accept that there should be adequate time both in Committee and on Report for hon. Members to focus on the main provisions of a Bill. That does not necessarily mean that we have to spend an equal amount of time on every clause, which is why it is helpful to have programme motions that ensure that there is a considered view on where the priority areas of debate within a Bill should be. As I have said, I would welcome a situation in which we could provide for more time for Bills to be considered, but to do that, I need a longer time perspective. That is where the carrying over of Bills could be not only of value to the business management of the House but of real benefit to Members carrying out their job of scrutiny.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Will the right hon. Gentleman promise that, in any reforms to improve scrutiny, he will use the Oxford dictionary definition of the word—"a critical, close investigation"—and that he will not base any reform plans on what appears to drive most new Labour Members, namely a desire for short debate, shorter speeches, early nights, long weekends, deferred voting and a further curtailment of opposition rights?

Mr. Cook rose

Mr. Knight: I have not finished. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when my party was in power, all the reforms that we implemented under the Jopling proposals were introduced by consent, following usual channels agreement between the Government and the official Opposition? Will he give the House an undertaking that he will do the same?

Mr. Cook: I seem to remember from my many years in opposition frequent occasions on which I turned up in the House to vote against guillotines on which there had been no consultation, and certainly no consensus between us and the Conservatives, who were then insisting on ramming through their legislation, including a number of Bills—such as the one that introduced the poll tax—which they lived to regret.

Through the Modernisation Committee, we are introducing a balanced package that will provide for improved scrutiny rights for the House, and will not just be about making life easier for Members of Parliament.

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Indeed, the purpose of modernisation is not to make life easier, but to enable Members of Parliament to do their job more effectively. Personally, I think that that might well involve starting the day in Parliament at an earlier hour and making sure that we return to this place in September. I hope that I will get the right hon. Gentleman's support for that.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in addition to taking evidence from experts in the pre-legislative scrutiny process, there is a lot to be said for taking evidence from practitioners who have experience of the issue being discussed, and who will ultimately be implementing the law? Does he agree that such consultation could result in our being less likely to make laws that are difficult to implement?

Mr. Cook: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Proceeding by pre-legislative scrutiny, or by Special Standing Committee—or, indeed, both—gives those outside the House the opportunity to comment. It is important for us to remember that pre-legislative scrutiny is a matter not only for MPs but for the wider civic community and for all those involved in the topic under consideration. If we can ensure that that process works satisfactorily, we might have fewer errors on the statute book of the kind of which there were many during the 18 years of Conservative Government.

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